Cult Insanity: A Memoir of Polygamy, Prophets, and Blood Atonement
By Irene Spencer
Center Street 2009
Won from Alita Reads
Irene Spencer married into a cult. As the daughter of polygamists, she found the idea of plural marriage perfectly normal and became the second wife of Verlan LeBaron. Her husband's family ran their group and her brother-in-law Joel was believed to be the Prophet, appointed by heaven. As Irene begins to think that her life might have some semblance of normalcy, her other brother-in-law Ervil decides that he is in fact the prophet and that their community must be purged of people who are working against him. Ervil systematically murders those who stand up to him, claiming the rite of blood atonement. Verlan, Irene, their children, and their friends begin a long saga of fearing for their lives, always wondering if they will be next.
Cult Insanity seems like the kind of book you won't be able to put down. It revolves around life within a polygamist cult as their tenuous existence is threatened by a madman who wants to murder them. But somehow, this book is tough to slog through. The first problem may be that this book is a sequel and I haven't read the first book. But I think the fact that Spencer constantly refers to other books, both her own and those written about her community, informs the reader that this book is not quite complete by itself.
Another issue is the truly gigantic cast of characters. Ervil is a dangerous man and succeeds in killing many of the people he targets. After a while, though, it is difficult to feel much emotion after you read about another person who is tenuously related to Irene and her family. Because we don't get to know these people, there is less of an impact in their terrible ends. Instead, the reader spends more time trying to figure out their connection to other characters and exactly what they did to anger Ervil.
I thought that our lack of knowledge about some of the other people in the community would be balanced by really getting to know Irene and her family. But this was not the case either. The whole premise of the book is that Irene has to protect her family from Ervil. But her husband Verlan is often gone, either for work or because he is hiding from his brother. Irene's children and Verlan's other wives pop up occasionally, but never long enough for the reader to make a connection with them. Irene herself manages to stay distant from the reader, even while relating her story. She occasionally begins to explain how she was feeling in a given moment about the dangers they faced, the poverty they experienced, or the trials of sharing your husband with several other wives. But just as you feel a door has been opened to her thoughts, she moves on to discuss another murder.
Cult Insanity is surely a frightening book. It is crazy to think that Ervil got away with systematic murder for so long and that so many people were powerless to leave the cult and find safety. But I think there are other books out there that will give you a better window into what it means to live within a polygamist society. This one ultimately falls flat because we do not have anyone within these pages to guide us and make us care.